Two stories I’ve read in the past few days give interesting indications of where new media may be headed. One of them, by Tom Schreier and published a few days ago on Deadspin.com, is a first-person account of a young writer’s struggles to get ahead at Bleacher Report, the crowd-written online sports site. The other is a Lizzie Widdicombe New Yorker piece from almost a year ago about the women’s website Bustle.com, whose founder was Bryan Goldberg, also a Bleacher Report founder. The site hires a lot of young women and churns out content, a quick look at their website demonstrates that you have to scroll down for quite a while to get to anything produced more than 24 hours ago.
The model of both sites is similar in that they both enlist young, green reporters to write about what they like. With Bleacher Report it’s their favorite sports teams and with Bustle it’s current world events, fashion, pop culture, and pretty much whatever interests the writers on a particular day. The idea is that people want to read writers who sound like them and lots of regular people will want to write about things that they care about. From a reader’s standpoint it’s a quick-and-easy way to stay in the loop and both sites have provided good opportunities for people to take their passions to the next level. From a business standpoint it’s easy to organize and execute because it’s low cost. And, with sophisticated techniques to up the page-views to increase ad revenue, profitable. However, close readings of each of these two pieces inspire concern. Take this quote from the New Yorker story:
A well-researched exposé, such as the one Sports Illustrated recently ran about N.C.A.A. violations by the Oklahoma State football team, may take many months of work from a highly paid reporter and editor. But, in the end, Morrissey said, “it yields the same revenue as a ‘25 Sexiest Female Athletes Who Can Kick Your Ass’ post, which costs, like, two hundred dollars.”
And this one from Deadspin:
In my three years at Bleacher Report, I covered the San Jose Sharks while studying in the Bay Area, and the Twins, Wild, Timberwolves, and Vikings upon returning home to Minnesota. I wrote over 500 articles, generated nearly three million page views, and received $200 for my services.
Both of these reveal problems: 1) Superficial content generates similar revenue to in-depth, quality material. This isn’t a new phenomenon, tabloids have been around forever after all, but it seems to have been amplified by the Worldwide Web. 2) It’s very easy for these types of sites to exploit people trying to practice their writing and get their names out there. While again, it’s great that they’re providing opportunities to aspiring journalists, it’s questionable as to whether they’re being fairly compensated or developed as reporters and writers. Real journalism almost always requires significant time and significant expertise (which takes a lot of time to develop). These conditions are only met when organizations really invest in talented people or when people work really hard at something for a long time (which can only be done if they can support themselves financially). Under new models, this is obviously not as profitable as inundating the web with amateur posts. Bleacher Report sells really cheap ads, which naturally advertisers love, and because they have so many posts, so many authors, and heavily rely on “search-engine optimization” (the practice of designing posts and their headlines with certain key words or phrases to appear on Google/Bing/etc., think Buzzfeed and Upworthy) it works. It works to the tune of $175 million, the price at which Bleacher Report was reportedly sold to Turner Networks in August 2012.
A lot of potentially good writers get screwed over in this model. While Bustle’s employees seem happy and seem to be paid pretty well, it’s hard to imagine them making good names for themselves as journalists, and much easier to imagine them being described as good assets. As readers we lose too. Bleacher Report produces plenty of good stuff and plenty of guilty-pleasure bad stuff we like to indulge in, but are we seriously being well-informed by it? In most cases, no. The company prioritizes aggregation and a kind of brute-force style that can be accomplished with minimal production costs. This comes at the expense of months-long deep investigative takes that upend our assumptions about the world. It’s the same concern I have with Jeff Bezos’ new Washington Post.
Here’s the money quote from the New Yorker:
Goldberg’s vision—with its triumph of mathematical certainties over editorial art—reminded me of the infinite-monkey theorem: if you were to have monkeys randomly strike typewriters for an infinite amount of time, the proposition goes, they would eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. If you assemble a sufficiently large and diverse group of young, female writers, they will eventually produce a Web site that is popular with young women.
Here is the nightmare scenario. Here we don’t have journalism or individuals anymore, just a crowd lost in their computers with the hope that one of them will have a masterpiece by the end of the day. Here any distinction between quality and quantity is forgotten because, according to the law of averages, with enough quantity we’ll eventually have some quality. This ignores the structural necessities required to identify and develop talent. It also imposes a certain mindless drone mentality upon something that requires a lot of creative thinking. Maybe it’s profitable, but is it right? Will we be better informed because of it? I don’t know, but I doubt it. At the least there needs to be pushback..